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Showing Daniel His Room

Max tugged on his leash, trying to break free to explore on his own. Daniel commanded him to sit and stay. He really didn’t know what was getting into his mutt. Just as he opened his mouth to ask he saw a cat tower nearby, which Max was staring at because there was a feline on it. A pair of sleepy eyes were on him suddenly as the dilute calico cat yawned.

“That’s Banshee,” Sansara declared. “Bill and Brinx are somewhere else right now. I do expect you to train Max to get along with them,” she ended somewhat curtly. “If you do not put your animal behind closed doors while you are working, I will train him my way. And he will probably listen to me before he listens to you if I do that.”

Daniel found himself nodding, looking between Sansara and the cat. “Why Banshee?” he asked. She smiled and moved in close — almost too close for his comfort — and began to pet the cat. Suddenly, a thunderous rumble came from the tiny cat.

“Because she wails like a Banshee. Duh,” she said flippantly. Daniel laughed at the ‘duh’ she threw in there, like it was a complete airhead thing to name a cat after the beings who bring omens of death because she wailed. Or was it a he? He couldn’t tell.

“Bill is giant grey tabby. Brinx is medium and black. I expect you to learn their names and treat them with the same amount of respect as I’m due,” she stated somewhat imperiously. She couldn’t be in her twenties at all, he thought just then, and realized a second time she was almost too close to him.

She walked away just then, saying, “Come, Max.” How did she know the dog’s real name?! This was too weird for him, but he had a feeling she had him by the balls no matter what. She had to know he couldn’t get a place due to his record, too. He decided he was never going to lie to this woman again if he could help it. He realized Max was still on his leash as the pupper got up to follow her down a hallway. Daniel was dizzy with this woman putting him in his place so efficiently and he wasn’t really sure he wanted to room with her, let alone sleep with her, if she was looking for a husband.

She stopped abruptly and he hoped to Hell she couldn’t read his mind. She turned to him with a bit of a smile on her face and then gestured to the patio door, which led to a drop-dead gorgeous garden outside. “You may release him now. However, if he digs anything up, you’re replacing it.” Okay, that part was fair. It was obvious she loved that garden. It was like a retreat in the middle of the city, even without a privacy fence.

“And if I can read your mind?” she asked with an innocent look on her face. “What does it change? You need a room, I want a tenant.”

He turned around from letting Max into the yard, sliding the patio door shut. “Yes, but why do you want a tenant?” he found himself asking before thinking about it. “And, can you really read minds?”

She laughed at him just then and shook her head. “If you believe that one, I’ll sell you another.” She walked away instead of answering his first question and he followed her. “This is the kitchen,” she said as she walked into a great spacious area that looked like it belonged in a hotel or a magazine for Better Homes and Gardens. “I prefer it to continue looking like this as much as possible,” she said.

“Okay, lady, wait. I need to know why you want a tenant,” he said when she paused. She quirked her mouth to the side, staring at him, as if weighing whether or not she wanted to answer.

“I’ll tell you after you agree to sublet the room,” she replied. “Would you care to finish the tour?” He nodded slowly, wondering what the hell she needed anyone for. It was clear she had a maid coming in weekly and everything. She might even have a gardener. He was just a deli worker! What on Earth could he offer that was of benefit to a lady who has everything?

“You saw the living room, where we came in. It is definitely devoid of a couch, and, well, pretty much anything. You may put whatever you like in there, I suppose… just beware that sometimes my neighbors have big eyes for things that aren’t theirs,” she said as she led him to the stairs that would go to the second floor. “I think everyone has a neighbor like that.”

He recalled there were three stories from outside. He wondered if she’d put him up at the very top or somewhere in the middle. He wondered a lot of things. The idea that this might be a test came to mind, so he put a little pep into his step and followed her up the stairs, trying his best not to look at her rear end as she led the way. He had noted briefly it was a very nice rear end the first time he saw it. She had a very nice everything, it would seem.

“Here’s your room,” she said as she gestured to an empty room twice as big as he expected. “I know stairs are a hassle, but I figured if you were down here, then there’s only one flight to drag your things up.” He walked into the room and looked around at the immaculate dust-free chamber. He opened the closet, noting it was far less generous than the one he’d become used to in his ex-wife’s house. That made sense, it was an older Victorian-esque building. They were fans of free-standing furniture for most clothing storage. The floor was a medium brown hardwood and there were blinds in the windows, which looked brand new to him. He wondered how long she’d lived here.

“You have a bathroom on this floor, which will generally be yours, but I warn you that I will use it if I happen to need it,” she said from the hallway, standing next to the bathroom. “Also, if you wish to paint your room, do it. I won’t help you and you should be careful about the ceiling. I will charge you when you leave if you do a terrible job. You seem like a teal or sage kind of guy. Maybe forest green. I’d recommend a lighter color, though, because it keeps the room cooler.”

He walked into the bathroom and his jaw dropped again. Unlike his closet-like commodes at his former house, the bathroom was huge. He could do floor angels in here, he thought. You know, snow angels without snow. It was forest green, gold, white and the epitome of fine taste, honestly. He wondered again if her home was featured in a magazine somewhere. It looked too clean.

“Since you are a man of few things, I’ll put towels in here for you,” she said so softly he almost missed the beginning of her sentence. He wanted to stop her from telling him all about himself; it was unnerving. He definitely couldn’t put anything past her ever again, so there was no reason to try.

“Thank… thank you. I’ll…” he paused, checking in with himself for the Nth time. “I’ll take it. Now will you tell me why you want a tenant?”

“I suppose so. Promise you won’t run away on me?” She fluttered her eyelashes at him as if flirting were appropriate in that moment. He was taken aback, honestly. There was no telling what could possibly come out of her mouth next.

“If I did, I’d end up leaving Max behind. That would never do,” he said cautiously, choosing his words as wisely as he could.

“Splendid!” she crowed. He half-expected her to launch herself at him, but instead, she said, “I need a body guard. Or a house guard, perhaps. A guard, at any rate. And I believe you are uniquely qualified,” she said to him with a wink.

Oh, for fuck’s sake! What was there about him that this woman didn’t know? Was she stalking him? She was standing still, looking extremely pretty and mostly innocent, but he didn’t buy it.

“What did you do?” he asked finally, deciding to take the bait.

“Oh, fudge. This is a long story. Dinner on me?” she asked.

He opened his mouth, raising a forefinger to speak, then closed his mouth again and dropped his hand. She had him hooked. He was beyond intrigued now and staring at her. And then she covered her face, thinking about dinner literally being on her. She didn’t think about how that sounded in the literal before she said it and he was staring at her so intently that she wanted it to be literal.

“Is everything okay?” he asked her, shaking his head in bewilderment. “I really don’t understand what’s going on here right now and I’m not sure I want to, but I can protect you.”

She got goosebumps when she heard his words, her hands still over her face for a few more moments. “Yes. Yes, everything is fine,” she declared. “Do you want to order in or I can make something or…? I don’t really feel like leaving again, whatever the case.”

“Okay. Do you have any beer? I have a feeling I’m really going to need one… or maybe six. And, I’ll want to see the rest of the place eventually so I know where all the exits are and everything,” he told her. He understood in that moment that she really hoped he was a police officer and it was really stupid of him to lie about that. If he’d just told her his story, the outcome would have been exactly the same, he’d put money on it.

“I have wine. I don’t drink beer. I can order some, it’d be here in about an hour or so,” she offered. “Here, come with me before you decide you need beer,” she said and descended the stairs. Her descent was so fast, he couldn’t help but stare as her breasts bounced. This would be a really trying assignment, being only the hired help, so to speak. He wondered if he could talk her down on the rent so he could get a vehicle more quickly.

His brain was going in circles as he followed her down one flight, then another to the basement. It was at least five degrees cooler in the basement… and then he noted there was sub basement, to boot. They continued their descent into a wine cellar that had at least thirty bottles of wine. No singular wine looked too fancy, but he wondered how many of these came from Schnucks or a wine club or something.

“You can pick two or three of these to bring up, if you like. Not that we have to drink that much, but you did say six beers, after all,” she said. “Or I can order some to be delivered, I don’t really care.” He wondered just then if this was her usual way of handling things or if she was desperate. He hoped she wasn’t desperate… it could be mob related somehow or something bizarre. Stranger things have happened, he thought.

She started looking through her wine stockpile and she picked out one bottle for herself. It was unassuming enough and he recognized the brand, so that was a plus. Martini and Rossi Asti. Champagne. It was top shelf but still affordable, in the grand scheme of things. He decided to Hell with it and took a look himself, picking out a sauvignon blanc from Chateau Ste Michelle. He found two of those and brought both. They were all white wines, or he’d have picked out a bordeaux or cabernet sauvignon.

She was already halfway up the stairs by the time he’d picked the wines out. Her t-shirt did nothing to hide her skinny jean-clad derriere as she marched upward and he found himself admiring it a little too long. “Get a hold of yourself, Daniel!” he murmured a reprimand to himself as he followed her upstairs.

He heard the unmistakable pop of a cork being let loose on the champaigne as he finished walking upstairs. He passed one of the cats on the way, the tabby. He tried to remember which one that was, Brinx or Bill.

“Leave the door open, I think I saw Brinx sneak down there,” she said to him as she poured into a wine glass that had appeared out of nowhere. There was a second one next to it and a cheese platter in the works, he noted. Blocks of cheese that she herself was slicing sat on the table in their own saver containers, a box of gluten-free crackers sat beside that, and a hunk of pepperoni. There were two cutting boards and two knives, he noted, but she didn’t say anything about him contributing. Instead, she said, “The corkscrew is in the drawer at the end of the island if you need it. I didn’t look to see if you picked something that needed one.”

He heard Max “boof!” from the yard and set down the wine to retrieve him. The pupper tracked in dirt, rather predictably, and started to wag his tail so hard at the sight of Daniel, he nearly knocked himself over.

Sansara looked at the energetic puppy as they both came into the kitchen. “I think I’ll order grocery delivery after all. I bet Max is pretty hungry by now. I’ll get some beer if you don’t prefer wine…?” She trailed off and looked at him questioningly.

“The wine is fine,” he said quickly. He marveled at how quick Sansara was to embrace the pup and try to take care of him. Little did he know that the woman he’d adopted Max from was actually a former friend of Sansara’s and Max had been her own pet prior to that. She figured she’d drop that bomb on him after he’d had a drink.

“Do you want anything particular for dinner or shall I drive, so to speak?” she stared at him after clearly starting an order on her phone.

“You go ahead and do whatever you like. I’m not picky but something tells me that you are,” he replied. She just blinked at him. He wondered if he was rude saying so, even though he didn’t mean it negatively.

“Sit down, son,” she said suddenly. He laughed and parked himself in a chair, returning from the island with the corkscrew. “I’ll handle it!” she added. She had altered her voice, using a Humphrey Bogart kind of accent on him and he found himself nothing short of delighted. Maybe there could be something more than just being roommates, after all. He hoped again she couldn’t actually read his mind.

She didn’t ask what to buy for Max, he thought, after she was satisfied with her order and hit the button. He wondered what she did buy, actually, because he was on a special diet per orders of Christina, the woman he’d adopted the dog from. He hoped it wasn’t anything he couldn’t have, but it was probably too late now.

She washed her hands after using her phone, dried them on a paper towel, and then finished slicing cheese and pepperoni. “I wish I had another meat,” she said. “Maybe I can add it to my order…” But as she looked at her phone after another round of hand-washing, she said, “Never mind.”

She placed a small square-shaped saucer in front of him and another in front of herself. “I’m not really that picky, Max,” she said, addressing the pup as she crouched down beside him and started looking him over, checking his ears, his eyes, looking into his nose and at his teeth. “But your owner has a stick up his ass, clearly. I’m glad he’s taking care of you, though. You’re a good boy,” she added and suddenly Max flopped onto his side to expose his belly to the woman. She rubbed his chest and belly vigorously, finally looking up from the dog to view Daniel once more.

“Wanna see a trick?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye. Daniel shook his head from side to side, still in disbelief mode.

“That’s a shame. I worked on it for a long time,” she said as she stood up. Max sighed a bit, knowing his attention bomb was expiring.

“Okay, fine, show me the trick,” Daniel said, exasperated.

Sansara made a finger gun with her right hand and pretended to shoot Max, saying, “BANG BANG!” To Daniel’s surprise, Max rolled onto his back with all four paws in the air and stayed still. What. The. Hell! She just met him, didn’t she?! He went pale as a sheet, thinking about how Christina told him she had adopted him from a friend of hers.

“Wait a minute! You know Christina, don’t you?” he demanded, shooting out of his seat and spilling his wine.

Sansara pouted at him. “That’s alcohol abuse!” She grabbed a paper towel and handed it to him. “Yeah. Max was mine, originally. He couldn’t stop chasing my cats, but I have rethought that since I parted with him, so I’ll train him not to.”

As if on cue, the big grey one prowled into the room. “Hi, Bill baby,” Sansara crooned at him. Max sat up immediately and Crystal held onto his collar to keep him from bolting over to the cat. “Now, now, Max. You need to learn your manners. Just sit here and wait, buddy.” Max was shaking like a leaf as Bill came closer and closer to him, finally sniffing the dog.

When Max rose to all fours, Bill backed off. Max had the saddest look on his face, but Sansara persisted. “Buddy, sit down.” He did. “Lay down,” she commanded, and he did that, too. “Now stay,” she said. It was clear that Max did not want to stay.

“Can you make him stay? That’s what I couldn’t get him to figure out. I assume I wasn’t doing it right or I ran out of patience.” She looked up at Daniel, still holding Max’s collar.

Stay!” Daniel commanded and Max complied. Sansara let go of his collar and waited for him to disobey, but thankfully the pupper stayed put.

“You handle him, I’ll get the cat over here.” She picked up her glass of Asti and sat on the floor, holding one hand out to Bill while sipping from her cup.

Daniel wondered how long it took her to train Max initially. In fact, why didn’t Christina show him the trick for playing dead? He wondered about that most. You’d think if Sansara went through all this trouble to train him with it, she’d show it off to him. Just how long did Christina have Max before giving him up? He’d bitten the neighbor’s dog and she didn’t want to deal with it anymore.

Surprisingly, Max stayed the whole time without another command. Daniel was really proud of the pupper for that and hoped it made him look competent in Sansara’s eyes, since she damn well knew he was going to be cat aggressive before she even walked him to her home. He wondered what kind of trouble she was in that she’d take a stranger home in complete trust, it seemed.

Sansara got Bill to sniff Max over. The poor animal shook and shivered as the cat inspected him closely. Daniel thought he might pee himself, he was so excited. Max was such a loving dog, really. He was a strong one, too, and tended to nose hard, so he knew that was exactly why Sansara had passed him on.

Eventually, Bill laid down next to Max, who sighed softly. He tried his best not to move. “I tried to teach him this for three months,” she said softly, giving Max a nose rub. “I guess it just needed a man’s touch,” she drawled.

Sansara stood up and took a seat across from him at her plain white table. The chairs weren’t plain white, though; they were teal. One of the only splashes of color in her kitchen, actually. She loaded her plate up with cheese, then went to wash her hands again. “I forgot, I touched aminals,” she said as she came back. He frowned a little, wondering if she realized she mispronounced animals.

Just then, the door chimed. “Ah, I’ll be right back.” He watched her check the peep hole from his vantage point in the kitchen, half-expecting mayhem to follow. She cracked the door open, to the extent the chain would allow, and declared, “Thank you!” to someone departing, it seemed. She unchained the door and brought in what she’d ordered from the internet. Interestingly, not one single cat or dog attempted to dodge outside, for which he was grateful.

He smiled a little as he saw her drag in a bag of Science Diet. Wait a minute, that bag wasn’t that heavy. He went to her and picked it up for her. She handed him the six pack she’d bought him despite his mild protest: Blue Moon Belgian White. She grabbed the remaining bags and shut the door, locking and chaining it again. She was definitely paranoid, whatever it was.

“Okay, now I’m all set to make us brats and burgers out at the grill. And some veg,” she said. Those were very normal things for anyone to eat in the area. He’d half-expected steaks and fancy vegetable platters or something of the like. “Would you care to accompany me, boys?” she asked the room at large as she carried a serving tray full of things to the patio door. She moved so gracefully and quickly, like magic.

Daniel shook his head at his own audacity, thinking she’d feed him extremely fancy food just because she ordered calamari at the bar. He’d made an assumption and clearly he was an ass for it. He grabbed her wine glass and his own to follow her to the patio with Max.

“Technically, you can let the cats out, but I’d rather not with Max until he’s learned his manners,” she said as she picked her serving tray up from the dumbwaiter next to the patio door. Daniel noted again that it appeared she really didn’t have anything worth taking from her, nothing that anyone would be jealous over. Maybe someone who was in awe of professional chefs like Emeril… but those were few and far between.

He took in the patio table and chairs once again, having seen them once from when he put Max outside. He set the wine glasses down before returning inside to snag the bottle of Asti for his future wife. He’d decided to help her drink it before opening the sauv blanc since it would go flat if unfinished, ultimately. He couldn’t help but think this was very much like a date as he sat down at the patio table. She turned the grill on and shut the lid.

“Do you need any water, Diego?” she asked. Either she was unwilling to share that she knew his name, she was honoring his silly little lie, or she didn’t know his name. It kind of grated on his nerves and he thought about coming clean. Hell, now or never, he thought.

“Yes, but I’ll come with you. I’d like to eat out here, so I’ll carry the plates if you don’t mind. And… one thing… my name isn’t Diego,” he said. She looked at him curiously, without any trace of disappointment or expectation. He wondered if she even cared what his name was. “It’s Daniel,” he revealed.

Daniel, I’d love to eat out here. I accept your help,” she said and then waltzed into the house, leaving the door open. He stepped inside quickly. Bill was eyeballing the open portal and she’d just warned him not to let them out until Max was trained.

Well, she was certainly keeping him on his toes, he thought. She was sharp, so he thought back to her using the made up word ‘aminals’ instead of ‘animals.’ It was such a troll thing to do. She said it completely casually, as if it were an every day word. He ended up bringing out plates, flatware, and the cheese tray while she brought out water, water glasses, and a bag that had come from the grocery store.

Outside, she started carving up veggies. She looked at the grill, then down at her vegetable task. “Are you up to starting the brats and burgers while I get this ready?” she asked him. Truth be told, he got sick of sitting around watching her do all the work, so he was glad that she finally asked him to do something. He was glad to get up and transfer the meat to the grill. He appreciated the sizzle from contact with the pre-heated metal. Seeing that she had an apron on her tray, he donned it and decided he could do half the chore of feeding them since they hadn’t ordered from a restaurant.

She came over with a small foil boat of sliced onions, which he looked at skeptically as she placed it on the top shelf, and cauliflower cut into one inch slices that were reminiscent of steaks in size and shape. “Got any space for these, Sir Deli Man?” she asked. She took a small container she’d brought out full of red liquid and dumped it into the little foil boat as he figured out how to place the cauliflower on the grill.

“What’s that, woman?” he asked, nodding to the foil boat.

“A Sansara original,” she replied. “Sliced onions in pomegranate wine. Don’t ask me why, but this only works on the grill,” she noted and reached to shut the lid as he finished placing the cauliflower. There were two burgers and brats for each of them. He briefly wondered if she could eat all that in one sitting or not.

“Does that make this wine o’ clock?” she asked, not moving from his side for a moment. Then, before he knew it, she was to the patio table and back again, handing him his drink.

He set it down on the side of the grill and said, “Perhaps water, first. It’s a hot day, after all.” She nodded and poured some water for both of them, then handed him that glass. She smirked a little as she looked at the apron’s hand-stitched words that declared Crystal’s Kitchen. He hadn’t wanted to ask about it because she said she was changing her name.

“That was a gift from a lovely lass in Alaska named Ardonell,” she said to him. He nodded, thinking that the name was not very feminine. “She said her parents named her after a Biblical figure, but I’ve never read the Bible,” Sansara offered. He wished he hadn’t, for a moment. His name was also from The Holy Bible and was attributed to a whiny bitch.

“We used to play City of Heroes together back in the day,” she told him. He looked at her oddly just then. “Um… it was an MMO centered on being a super hero or villain,” she offered helpfully. “I mean, a massively multiplayer online video game.” He just kept staring at her as if she’d grown another head.

She blinked and decided to chug her water just then. “You played CoH?” he asked dubiously. She stopped chugging her water and he was grateful she didn’t choke on it, actually. That would have ruined the gentle camaraderie they were building up and potentially turned it into an emergency and he didn’t even know the address of where he was just yet.

She just nodded. He stared, wishing she’d say more, but she didn’t. “Would you like to talk about it?” he asked, opening the grill’s lid to fuss with the things inside. In just a few more minutes, they’d have dinner.

“I forgot napkins, so I’ll be right back,” she said, evading his question yet again. He smiled a little. Did he make her nervous? Is that what it was? Was she shy? Or was she evasive because she was a little minx? He guessed it could have been all of the above. He’d never met a woman so adverse to answering questions about herself in his whole life up to that moment. He wondered when she was going to tell him the original story he asked for, since it was apparently long.

She reappeared as he was taking the food off the grill and putting it onto their plates, dividing them evenly. Everything but the onions… he wasn’t sure about those. She took a small plate he hadn’t seen off the serving tray and pulled the little onion boat onto it before setting it on the table.

“We can talk about video games another time, I promised you a story. I think we should eat up and then I’ll begin… but if you have anything you want to know that might not take an hour to tell you about, we can talk about that now instead.” Ah, so she was trying to manage her time, he thought.

She drained her glass of champaigne and poured herself another just then. It was that kind of story, he guessed. “Say, got any ketchup?” he asked suddenly.

“Uh… I only have pickle relish and mustard at the moment. I’m not a fan of ketchup because it tastes nothing like tomato,” she said. “I can go grab those if they tickle your fancy, though? Or I can let you be a big boy and get them yourself,” she added with a bit of a mischievous look that included a twinkle in her eye.

“I can go get them myself,” he offered.

“Oh, and bring a bowl out for Max, would you? I’m sure he’s hungry, too,” she said, patting the pupper on the head as he sat beside her with the most soulful eyes you could imagine.

He couldn’t say he dilly dallied while he was inside, but it did take him two minutes to find a bowl and another few moments to find something to open the bag of Science Diet she’d purchased. All in all, he’d guess he was away for five whole minutes. And when he returned to the patio, half her plate was gone. Damn, that girl must be hungry, he thought.

He tried not to gawk or even make comment of it, he simply placed Max’s bowl on the ground, which the dog attacked immediately, and then the condiments on the table. He’d also found a jar of horseradish and managed to bring it all out via the apron. The pockets were handy, he had to admit. She didn’t seem interested in adding anything to her meat and vegetables.

He noticed while he was gone, some pink onions found their way onto his plate. He looked at them suspiciously. In fact, he started to wonder, because she didn’t have any buns of any sort. He’d looked for those, too, while he was inside. She had nothing he took for granted as staples. He wondered why.

Her pink onions were completely gone, he saw. He gulped, wondering if she was just extremely weird or if they were actually any good.

“I discovered,” she said in between bites, “that meat tastes better to me naked.”

He did not feel like joining her as such, so he put some mustard and relish on his burgers and his brats both, along with a dollop of horseradish. She stared at his plate and shook her head from side to side slowly.

She just sat there and stared as he ate. She stopped eating completely at this point, drinking some water. “I don’t know how you do it. Do you even taste the meat after all that? I can’t.”

He nodded at her. “I sure can,” he replied. She shook her head again, then nabbed some more cheese from the cheese tray. Rats! He forgot about that being there. He took some cheese himself and dressed what was left of his food in slices of cheddar. Now she just looked openly disgusted, but she said nothing. He was grateful for that because he made a mess, adding the cheese last.

“You eat that, then I will show you something,” she said. Then she picked up her wine glass and resumed drinking the Asti. “So, many moons ago, I started dating an asshole,” she began. “His name? Benjamin Andrew Cartwright. His occupation? Engineer. His game? Total control and annihilation of who I used to be.”

He sat up straighter, realizing that she was finally telling him what he had been dying to know two hours ago. He nodded at her, taking a drink from the beer he’d brought from the fridge. He had decided to leave the wine drinking to the lady and besides that, Blue Moon was excellent when paired with grilled meats. And the cauliflower wasn’t half bad. The onions? He was still leery of them. He didn’t like onion much at all.

“I found him on OkCupid, or, rather, he found me, and messaged me over one of the movies I mentioned in my profile. For the record, I am never dating again. I’m just going to outright get married when the right kind of gentleman comes along. We messaged for about two weeks before I accepted an invitation for a date,” she continued. Damn, he thought. That’s a long time! “So you might not be as surprised when I say when one thing led to another, and he asked me to go back to my place five hours later, we did.” Damn, he thought. That’s a really long first date!

“I wanted to know if I wanted to ever see him again. If I’d gone with my gut instinct, I would have quit after we glazed some pottery together — my idea, if you’re wondering — and never talked to him again. I should have chosen that door, but somewhere around the time I was thinking that asshole spoke too much about himself, never letting me have a word edgewise, he stopped doing it and started asking me questions about myself.”

Daniel nodded, carefully chewing all his food as he ate. She paused to put another piece of bratwurst in her mouth and chew that, staring off into outer space somewhere in the garden.

“I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to see him again, and we were in Kirkwood where it was easy to walk somewhere else once that shop closed, so we went for coffee after that. The coffee shop was so busy! I can’t remember a damn thing that went on inside of it. I thought, OK, I could see this twerp again. I didn’t use the word twerp at the time, but that’s the gist of how I feel about him now.”

Daniel nodded again, afraid to interrupt her but also happy to eat unfettered.

“Outside, he must have known that I warmed up to him, I guess. It was a cold February evening, about seventeen degrees Fahrenheit, and he delayed me like a psychopath, showing me music videos on his phone on a park bench. Every time I tried to leave, now that I think of it, he kept delaying me. I should have seen it as a massive red flag, Daniel, but I didn’t,” she said as her eyes returned to him finally.

“We ended up in a Bar Louie, actually. We bought one drink a piece and it was getting late. I ordered some appetizers because it was eleven in the evening and I ate at five in the evening. I should eat every three hours, honestly. So I ate and sobered up… but by that time, he asked to sit next to me. He was obviously truly excited about it and we kissed, which wasn’t the most pleasant experience.” She paused. “Anyway, he insisted on going to my place, saying he even brought his c-pap machine if he ended up spending the night. I kicked him out not much longer after he entered, really.”

“My place wasn’t really as clean as the place I have now,” she said. “Later, he told me he knew I was a complete slob because of how my place had been that day. I didn’t anticipate bringing a stranger home with me, that’s for damn sure. But I did. He had insisted on walking me to my car and then he followed me home. He even ran a red light on the way because I’d never done that before and I went through the light when it was just turning yellow.”

Daniel found himself nodding along, nursing his beer again after his own food had pretty much disappeared. He still didn’t have the guts to try the onion, not yet.

“Are you going to eat that? It’s one of my favorite concoctions,” she said as she eyeballed the onions. “I mean, it doesn’t even taste like onion anymore.”

Daniel stared at her, tight-lipped, then picked up his fork to try one sliver of onion. That was all he cared for, as it turned out. She swapped plates with him and said, “Eat that without all that other junk on it and see how you like it, you heathen.” She’d left him a half a burger and half a brat, as it turned out. He supposed the least he could do is try it without adding anything. He did, then added everything anyway. He was a sucker for condiments.

“Heathen,” she hissed under her breath. “Might as well buy you the cheap shit.” She piped up a bit louder to continue her story, “Anyway, after everything is said and done, four and a half years later, I got away from that psychopath and I think he’s trying to stalk me, which is why I moved to this location. I’m not really the biggest fan of brick ovens, but it’ll do, pig, it’ll do.”

He wondered if she said that because he’d told her the policeman lie or if she was quoting something. “That’s a quote from Charlotte’s Web,” she offered, as if on cue. “There are a lot of sordid details between the beginning and the end that I could go over, but most importantly, I feel my life is in danger.”

Now there was something. She was a damsel in distress. Now how often did that happen? Real distress, too, not melodramatic bull shit. He wondered briefly if she did anything to him to purposefully raise his ire or not.

“When I left, I tried to trick him into thinking I’m a psychopath. I thought it worked, too, because he went no contact with me after I moved out in January. He stopped answering text messages, he turned some uh… compromising photographs to read-only, and otherwise stopped trying to contact me in any way… but I saw him drive past my first apartment on my Ring camera. He drives a blue Hyundai Elantra and no one in that area had one. I walked the neighborhood at least six times just to check. I only ever saw it on my camera once, but it was enough to make me leave. I couldn’t make out the driver, so it could be nothing, but there was this one time he had his hand on my throat and I thought he would hurt me. I never forgot that. I never will,” she finished.

He wanted to know everything now, but was it appropriate to pry? Would he learn something that made him dislike his new roommate? He assumed he would, which is actually why he wanted to pry.

“The last time I saw him, I threw a crockpot on the floor because I wasn’t paying attention to what was on the table when I decided to push everything onto the floor. It was my crockpot and it died an honorable death. RIP Susie. Anyway, after that, I was so fed up with that bastard, I fell to the floor in the living room and just let out the loudest, most heinous scream I could muster. A moment later, he was right behind me, screaming at me. You know, like a ferocious animal howl. I wanted to punch his lights out for getting so close to me. He raped me, Daniel. He raped me hundreds of times. I stopped consenting two years before our relationship was finally really over. It’s a psychology thing that I’ll probably have to explain, but I was trauma bound to him. I couldn’t make myself leave, not until I finally had it. Not until he tried to coerce me into a polygamous relationship. Anyway, I turned around and I pushed the tip of my index finger into his chest and I said to him: ‘This isn’t about you.’ I think I said something else that was meant to sound real threatening, and then I told him to go to our friend’s house until Thursday since the friend offered to put him up and I was moving out already. That’s the last time I ever saw him.”

Daniel just kept nursing that beer. In fact, it was almost empty. He knew he was going to end up drinking at least one more. Good thing he had the following day off. He could see why she didn’t want to talk about this in public. It was juicy, in a word. And he could see it had to be true, too. She didn’t once do a damn thing to negate herself in any way, not that he could tell anyway.

“We should go inside, I guess. Heathen,” she added as she started to clean up the grill. She took a wooden paddle to the grill plates, scraping the char off before covering it up again, now that it had gone cold. He busied himself stacking plates and setting them on the serving tray to go into the house once more. He glanced at the bowl Max had and found it empty, so he added that, as well. Max was lying on his belly in the grass, looking happy as Hell to be outside.

He nodded at her as she opened the door to let them both in. She brought in the empty Asti bottle and the wine glasses, since they didn’t fit on the tray without threat of falling off. “Thank you,” she said as he carried most of everything into the kitchen. He smiled a little. She’d call him a heathen and thank him, apparently.

It was much cooler inside than out, though he’d paid little mind to the outdoor temperature. The alcohol made it easier to deal with, that’s for sure. It was a humid day, too, but her patio was in the shade, thankfully. That kept it very pleasant, he had to admit. He could really get used to living here with her… if he could trust her not to destroy any more crockpots.

She switched to water and sat down at the kitchen table with it. “Crystal…” he began. She looked at him sheepishly. “What did you do to that man to make him want to hurt you?” She looked at him dumbfoundedly.

“The only thing I can think of is when I gave him a bunch of rules to follow after he tricked me into condoning his union with another woman behind my back. I was vicious and I admit it… You see, he long said he wanted to have sex with other people. Women, specifically, I suppose now. He was most definitively bi-curious if not gay, so I was encouraging him to try a man on for size,” she said, to which he nearly spit beer to. “And he convinced me he was dating a man. That is, until I urged him to have sex with that man and then he came home and told me that it was a woman he just fucked. I made him get out of bed and shower right then and there. I could smell her on him. I was so angry he lied to me to get his way. Doesn’t he know that I didn’t actually give him permission to fuck a woman if he obtained permission via a lie?”

“Before he even did that,” she continued, which made Daniel gulp suddenly. Whatever she was about to say next was going to be left field and he knew it. “Before he even did that,” she said again, “I offered to take him to Nevada, to a brothel, to rent a lady’s time together.” Being prepared, Donovan simply set down his beer bottle. He would have choked to death if he’d been drinking while she said that. She stared at the bottle for a moment, then him. “He declined because there were too many rules to keep the sex workers safe.”

The look on Daniel’s face must have been priceless. His eyes were as wide as they could get. The man didn’t want to sleep with his wife and a sex worker because it was too safe?! What kind of Twilight Zone episode was this? If his ex had said anything of the sort, they’d have been in Nevada before she said “duh,” or so he thought. What a fucking fool! What a psychopath, actually, now that he thought about it. He wanted to risk his health having sex with other women.

“He told me he needed it to be an actual relationship. A repeated thing. I lost my mind, I’ll tell you that, but I didn’t do anything other than impose just as many rules (if not more) than he’d have if he’d taken my deal to go to Nevada. That’s probably the worst thing I’ve done to him on purpose, but maybe he thinks something else tops that. Bill was spraying the basement quite consistently, but I paid damn near a grand to get that fixed with a carpet cleaning company right before I left. In fact, my moving helpers cleaned it one more time after my cats were moved out, too. I don’t know what I’d have done without them, but they are also gone and that’s another long story I don’t feel like getting into this second.”

Daniel sat there, stunned, his head shaking almost imperceptibly back and forth. He looked at Crystal one more time. She didn’t deny it was her name, and she did say she was legally changing it to Sansara. He saw a very lovely woman on the other side of that table. Her eyes were lively though he couldn’t quite pin down what color. Her hair was impeccable and short. It was black, too, a color he was fond of. Her face was heart-shaped and so were her lips, honestly. Her eyebrows weren’t plucked like all the women who wished they were something they weren’t. She wore a Rob Zombie t-shirt and skinny jean leggings and sandals, all of which were black. In a word, she looked delectable.

“Why on Earth would that guy even want another woman?” he wondered out loud.

“What do you mean? He told me that I’m not enough,” she said blankly. “It caused me to have a nervous breakdown, which started the trauma bonding, actually. He did it by asking me for the fifth time if I was okay with him seeing a side chick named Elaine from the beginning of our relationship and I lost my shit because a few days before that he looked at me like a puppy in love and said, I quote, You are enough. Obviously, I was never enough. I got the memo. I broke up with him and made him choose to have a girlfriend or pursue the life Elaine promised to fulfill. After a few days, he chose me, saying… much to my chagrin… I’ve never had a girlfriend before, I’ll try that.”

“I thought he really meant it when he chose me, but then he started to hurt me by telling me for years, once a month at least, that he needed to sleep with other people. I cried every single time, but he did it anyway. I couldn’t leave. I wanted to. I desperately wanted to, but every time I got closer to the door, he’d intercept me and reel me back in. Even when it became clear to us both that his house was killing me.”

She stopped talking and looked down at her hands as more tears came then. He hated himself in that moment. He was making her cry as she remembered the cruelty dealt to her. It became very clear to him it was likely she did nothing at all to piss that man off, he was simply a psychopathic loser.

“And right after that, we nearly got caught by the cops having sex in a parking lot, too, and he didn’t want to stop and I didn’t fancy going to jail for indecency, so I pushed him away and left,” she added.

He shook his head. God damn! She had to be quite the woman. From just the little she’d said, he wished he was with her. He wished he was her husband. Well, there was a long road to follow if he really wanted that… she’d already told him she wasn’t going to date ever again. She was going to be married to someone worthwhile, he recalled, though those weren’t her exact words. He wondered what worthwhile meant, what it entailed, and how he could be that man for her. And he’d just met her. This was… fast, he had to admit to himself. Maybe he was a sucker for damsels in distress, but he didn’t particularly think so. He wasn’t really lonely yet, so that couldn’t be an explanation for how he was feeling.

He felt like he needed to protect her. He felt like she should be cherished and held and reassured instead of sitting on the other side of the table wiping away tears, silent and dignified.

“Anyway, I was convinced to leave him and I tried hooking up with this guy I had liked from before him and that was the absolute wrong move. I hadn’t fully realized yet that I’d just spent two years before being raped and I needed to overcome that psychologically. Not to mention that guy raped me, too. I was too sick to say no at the time. I hate myself for it, actually,” she said as she looked away.

Max, sensing her distress, came over and got into her lap. His version of doing that was sitting on his hind legs while he put his upper body on her. She smiled a little and pet Max, glad for a little fur baby comfort. That’s not all, though. The three cats came into the room. Daniel was amazed, in a word.

The three felines were cautious of Max at first, but soon enough he saw them pestering her by rubbing up against the back of her legs. She hooked her fingers under Max’s collar to keep him from jumping off her and chasing the cats, but he barely moved. “Good boys,” she murmured to the animals.

“I wish I was never born,” she said suddenly and more tears rolled down her face. “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve the shittiest life ever. Was I Hitler in my past life? Do we even get reborn? I have no fucking clue. I hope not. I never want to come back to this Hell hole ever again.”

Daniel found tears rolling down his cheeks now. She sounded like the most miserable soul on the planet just now. Four and a half years… could that have been her very first relationship? She looked really young to him still.

“Say, how old are you?” he asked her just then. “Just to put this all into some sort of perspective, I mean.”

“Old enough to be miserable,” she responded. “Don’t you know it’s rude to ask a lady her age?”

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